Week 117: From ‘King Lear’, Act V, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare

I once attended an open-air performance of ‘King Lear’, and very good it was too on a darkening summer evening against a backdrop of ruins. The only problem was that this being a small company there was some doubling up of roles, and the same female actor played both Cordelia and the Fool. This clearly confused two old ladies sitting in front of me, who, going along with the Shakespearean convention that any change of costume serves as an impenetrable disguise, not unnaturally assumed that the Fool actually was Cordelia, come back to keep an eye on her old dad just as Kent had come back in disguise to serve his master and Edgar to assist Gloucester. I don’t think this is quite what Shakespeare intended – let’s face it, most ideas about Shakespeare are probably not what Shakespeare intended – but there is certainly a case to be made for the Fool as Cordelia’s alter ego, both radiating the same dangerous innocence. It seemed particularly appropriate that these final lines of reconciliation between Lear and his daughter should have coincided with the last light from the west, before the play ended in death and darkness.

  • Edmund. Some officers take them away. Good guard
    Until their greater pleasures first be known
    That are to censure them.
  • Cordelia. We are not the first
    Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst.
    For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
    Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown.
    Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?
  • Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
    We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
    When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
    And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
    And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
    At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
    Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too
    Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out
    And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
    As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
    In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
    That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

Week 79: From ‘Troilus and Cressida’, by William Shakespeare

I believe that others before me may have noted that a certain gentleman from Stratford was a pretty good poet, so I hardly need to add my own halfpennyworth except to comment on how, even in the lesser known plays, that infinitely flexible speaking voice of his can take on a quality of haunting immediacy. I love how Cressida’s magnificently over-the-top protestations are undercut by the proleptic irony of her faithlessness to be: was anyone ever better at doing the grand rhetorical style while at the same time subtly undermining it?

Cressida: If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind oblivion swallow’d cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing – yet let memory
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood: when th’ have said ‘As false
As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, or wolf to heifer’s calf,
Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son’
– Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
‘As false as Cressid.’